Koreans used to call their neighbors iutsachon, or “neighbor-cousins.” People’s neighbors may not be related by blood, but the daily interactions they have naturally lead to family-like solidarity. This type of relationship with neighbors used to be common in Korea with the traditional housing and living arrangements.
Back then, fences were low, and main gates either did not exist or were never locked; and everyone in the neighborhood knew each other. As people began migrating to cities, and competition became necessary for day-to-day survival and the norm of the economy, people’s warm memories of “neighbor-cousins” were forgotten, and the neighborly communities as we knew them began to disappear one by one.
Today, in 2016, the neighborhoods of Seoul are undergoing change once again. More and more people have been starting to organize and develop their neighborhoods, creating flourishing communities with the goal of reviving the old neighbor-cousin relationships. Located in Sinsa 2-dong, Eunpyeong-gu, the neighborhood of Sansae is a good example of this. Situated at the foot of Bongsan Mountain, Sansae was a poor and dilapidated neighborhood; over 80 percent of its houses were more than 20 years old, and the majority of the population was undereducated and old. To address this situation, Seoul subsidized the repairs of sidewalks, roads, and stairways throughout the neighborhood, and also created communal facilities and neighborhood shelters. In addition, locals participated actively in efforts to clean up the local slaughterhouse, abandoned houses, and waste depositories that had fallen into disuse over a period of three decades and created a 1,600-square-meter public vegetable garden. Locals today grow numerous types of vegetables and plants in this garden, of portion of which they donate to welfare facilities in the area. Every Tuesday, the farmers cook a meal for local seniors and the local volunteers who work to keep the neighborhood clean.
|Public vegetable garden||Community center|
It has become quite natural for the residents of Sansae to chat and work together every day, thanks to Sansae Nest, which opened up in October 2015. A communal space and hub of community activities, Sansae Nest features a book café and nursing room on the first floor, a study room for local teenagers on the second floor, and a communal guesthouse and other amenities on the third floor.
The residents of Sansae also gather together to repair and renovate worn-down houses. Participating locals first learn basic repair skills at the House Repair Academy, and then organize committees and task forces to carry out major projects involving insulation, painting, and other such repair and maintenance work. This program reduces the financial burden that locals would otherwise incur to renovate their homes, improves the neighborhood, and deepens solidarity.
There are numerous neighborhoods in Seoul that boast remarkable histories, unique customs, and an active and living heritage. One such neighborhood is Jeongneung-dong.
Situated along the Namjangdae of Bukhansan Mountain, Jeongneung-dong’s name comes from the fact that it is home to Jeongneung, the royal tomb of Madame Kang, the concubine of Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty. Divided up into four administrative units, the neighborhood is also home to Bukhansan Mountain, the tallest of Seoul’s four major mountains (Gwanaksan, Suraksan, Dobongsan, and Bukhansan). Rising 936 meters above sea level, Bukhansan Mountain is home to a beautiful national park that draws visitors from across Korea all year round.
The lush green forest atop the mountain is also the perfect venue from which to enjoy the panoramic view of downtown Seoul. Renowned for its history, tradition, and natural beauty, Jeongneung-dong continues to inspire numerous artistic and creative projects. Architecture 101, a hit Korean movie that evoked memories of unrequited first love among viewers, featured Jeongneung-dong as an old and romantic neighborhood to which the main characters traveled by Bus No. 143. Jeongneung-dong was also home to Park Gyeong-ni, the revered Korean author, when she wrote The Land, a masterpiece of Korean literature. The area still serves as one of the two terminuses along the route of Bus No. 1, which has been running across Seoul for over five decades.
Home to a population of 100,000, Jeongneung-dong is larger than a small rural town. Yet most of the buildings in this old neighborhood are detached houses, row houses, and low-rise multi-household buildings. These days, redevelopment is a major issue affecting the lives of locals, not only in Jeongneung 1-dong, where the Gireum New Town Development has already been completed, but also in the three other administrative units of Jeongneung-dong. Nevertheless, the timeworn yet affordable housing in Jeongneung continues to attract diverse groups of people, including immigrants and young people, while the new high-rise apartment buildings attract new families to the area.
|A street festival in Jeongneung|
In 2012, the diverse groups of residents in Jeongneung began to come together to work on neighborhood community projects. The pioneering figures of this movement were local parents who wanted to organize a community-wide joint daycare program for their children. As soon as Seoul included Jeongneung in its Neighborhood Community Program in 2012, locals set up a steering group and established several neighborhood businesses and facilities, including a café and art workshop.
This community-building movement began spreading throughout the neighborhood. Residents soon launched a group for the training of culture curators, organizing local volunteers to curate Jeongneung, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Based on their awareness of climate and environmental issues, some residents of the area began developing an energy self-sufficient neighborhood project. Locals also started publishing Our Neighborhood Neungmal, a magazine featuring a collection of stories of local residents and the history of the neighborhood. The neighborhood of Jeongdeun became a center for the conservation of old hanok houses, while Samdeok led the effort to renovate old houses with lawns. In addition, the Toad Housing Project was launched to offer vacant old houses to young artists and entrepreneurs for affordable rents. These small and diverse groups and initiatives have begun transforming Jeongneung, bringing together former strangers as new neighbors, and growing through the efforts and willingness of residents to share and pool their resources.
The Neighborhood Community Program has led to major transformations in the personal lives of residents as well. Koh Chang-nok, for example, was a typical middle-class family man who used to volunteer to serve as the representative of his apartment building. Thanks to the program, he mobilized the tenants of his building to cultivate a rooftop vegetable garden. Inspired by this experience, Mr. Koh has been working as a neighborhood consultant since 2013. He says he has met far more people in the last couple of years working as a neighborhood consultant than he had met in his entire life before he took this new position.
Kim Jeong-ho, who aspired to become a good father, realized that good parenting was a communal affair that required the concerted efforts of the entire community. Mr. Kim thus organized, along with other local parents, the Great Families of Jangan Neighborhood and applied for support from Seoul’s Neighborhood Community Program. Having organized a number of highly successful neighborhood activities, such as the Walkathon into the History of the Neighborhood, Wednesday Playground, and Daddy Project, Mr. Kim has become a major role model not only for the kids but the entire neighborhood as well.
Mr. Koh and Mr. Kim are only a few of the countless examples of neighborhood residents who are finding new fulfillment and meaning in life through the revitalization of the neighborhoods of Seoul. These everyday neighborhood leaders are transforming Seoul, a city of 10 million, into a better, more closely knit community.
|Neighborhood consultant at the Seoul Community Support Center||Sports Play with Moms and Dads (Janghan Neighborhood)|
The 25 self-governing boroughs of Seoul are divided into a total of 423 administrative units. The official statistics, however, fail to convey the active and thriving neighborhood communities of Seoul, whose origins can be traced back to the launch of the Neighborhood Community Program in 2012. This key policy initiative of Seoul encourages neighborhoods to solve their own problems by forming strong, tight-knit networks of relationships among the residents themselves. Through this program, any group of three or more residents, including nonprofit organizations and neighborhood enterprises, can apply for support from the city to carry out their communal initiatives and projects. Examples include the creation of public salons and spaces, joint parenting and daycare programs, consumer cooperatives run by residents, neighborhood enterprises that create jobs for locals, and neighborhood festivals.
As neighborhood communities began to grow, residents started learning not only how to develop and implement their own project plans, but also how to decide what types of support they need from the city government. According to the requirements of local residents, Seoul provides a wide range of support for neighborhood initiatives in all phases of growth.
|Outcomes of the NCP (2014)r||Town hall meetings for participatory local governance|
Five years have passed since the Neighborhood Community Program was launched. In the meantime, Seoul, a city of 10 million, has become more active and prosperous thanks to the story-worthy efforts of countless neighborhood communities. From the beginning of the program to April 2014, a total of 9,834 neighborhood groups and organizations applied for support, and 3,230 of them received it. The program has definitely increased the number of gatherings and activities of small groups. In the program’s first year, 56.4 percent of the applications were submitted by existing nongovernmental organizations. By 2014, however, the proportion of applications from such organizations had fallen drastically to 10.8 percent, with new local initiatives submitting the remaining 89.1 percent of applications. Most importantly, 65.4 percent of NCP-supported groups have continued to carry out their neighborhood activities even after they stopped receiving support.
The program’s dramatic evolution reflects its focus. First and foremost, the program supports the initiatives of local residents. Participants of the program thus mobilize and dedicate their resources to the needs and causes they identify as necessary, during the periods of time they decide, and to the extent they want as well. Locals are encouraged to carry out the entire process on their own, from organizing public awareness campaigns to recruiting necessary members and workers and finding the spaces and raising the capital they need. This process itself serves to support community building and growth, with only minimal administrative support given where necessary.
In 2014, the Neighborhood Community Program thus began evaluating applicants through a process that the applicants themselves attended. Now that the program has entered its second phase, “co-governance” has become the central theme. Co-governance is an ideal of public decision-making that requires the substantial and active participation of diverse stakeholders in making policies for a given policy community. This ideal contrasts with the unilateral and hierarchical model of public decision-making that has so far been the norm.
Seoul’s Neighborhood Community Program will continue to support the solidarity and activities of neighborhood communities, enabling residents to transform their neighborhoods, citizens to create a more livable city, and tourists to experience exciting community initiatives and stories throughout Seoul.